Thirty Years On: Spring 1989

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been thinking of whether or not to follow up on this series. It’s hard to follow up on what I personally consider one of the best years for alternative rock in the 80s in terms of musicianship, quality, consistency and creativity. On a more personal note, it’s also hard to follow up having a positive and stellar year when nearly your entire circle of friends has left for greener college pastures. Regardless, I did my damnedest to remain as positive as I could; I still had the other friends in my year and younger.

In retrospect this makes me sound rather shallow, and I suppose it does in a way. My connection to the just-graduated gang had been a deep and close one that I hadn’t had previously, and I suppose their moving on affected me more than I’d expected. I suddenly found myself going from ‘part of the gang’ to flying solo (or almost solo), and it took me a long time to get used to that.

Regardless, I still had college radio and 120 Minutes to fall back on. Plus, I was on the final circuit towards the end of my high school career, and it was time for me to find myself and shine somehow.

The Darling Buds, Pop Said…, released January 1989. If there’s anything I noticed about 1989, is that it seemed to have a more pop sheen to it. Not in the ridiculous plastic way that permeated the mid-80s pop scene, but in a fun, free-for-all way. This was thanks to multiple scenes in the UK kicking off the party culture that soon became known as Britpop. The Buds, coming from South Wales, brought in a sparkly indie-pop sound that caught the ears of many a fan.

Love and Rockets, “Motorcycle”/”I Feel Speed” single, released 3 January 1989. Meanwhile, the trio once known for its dreamy psychedelic indie rock over the last four years suddenly changed pace and delivered a growling punch of raucous surf rock about singer Daniel Ash’s love of motorcycles. The b-side “I Feel Speed” is a gorgeous dreamlike interpretation of the song done almost entirely on David J’s bass.

Throwing Muses, Hunkpapa, released 23 January 1989. The last album featuring bassist Leslie Langston, this outing was much more pop-oriented than their previous records, providing a college radio favorite with “Dizzy”.

New Order, Technique, released 30 January 1989. While not as brilliant as Low Life or Brotherhood, it’s nonetheless a solid album featuring some of their best hybrid sound of synth and guitar. It’s also quite melodic compared to some of their earlier records.

Morrissey, “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” single, released 31 January 1989. An absurd yet catchy ode to the Reggie and Ronnie Kray, London’s most famous (and infamous) mobsters of current history. It was the first of numerous non-album songs Morrissey would drop over the course of the next decade. Also a song and video that surprised many: it features three other ex-Smiths (Andy Rourke on bass, Mike Joyce on drums, and tour guitarist Craig Gannon), briefly firing up rumors of a sort-of Smiths reunion.

The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul, released 7 February 1989. Paul Westerberg and Co followed up 1987’s fantastic Pleased to Meet Me with an album that sounds like maybe they sobered up a titch and started writing more solidly and melodically. They’re older and perhaps a bit wiser at this point.

Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw and the Cooked, released 20 February 1989. The trio’s second (and so far final) album was a big hit across the board, both on pop and modern rock charts, thanks to its lead-off single “She Drives Me Crazy”. It also had quite a memorable video (choreographed and directed by Phillippe Decouflé, whose only other music video was the equally memorable “True Faith” for New Order).

XTC, Oranges and Lemons, released 27 February 1989. Perhaps partly inspired by their side project The Dukes of Stratosphear, whose records were a straight-up 60s psychedelic rock pastiche, this record blended those psych tendencies with lovely pastoral sounds and catchy pop tunes.

Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls, released 28 February 1989. Their second album (and first for a major label) was a stellar folk-rock record that gained them a huge following, and major airplay on both college and commercial stations with their hit “Closer to Fine.” It’s an amazing album from start to finish and a must for anyone’s collection.

Robyn Hitchcock, Queen Elvis, released March 1989. His follow-up to the fan favorite Globe of Frogs — and named after one of his songs that would appear on 1990’s solo record Eye — is full of beautiful and introspective songs, yet still peppered with his trademark eclectic wit. It’s my personal favorite of his 80s output.

De La Soul, Three Feet High and Rising, released 3 March 1989. Goofy, fun, and relentlessly creative, it’s a blast to listen to with its positivity and humor. Thirty years later and they’re still going strong with new records and high-profile appearances, including Gorillaz’s ace track “Feel Good Inc.”

Depeche Mode, 101, released 11 March 1989. Their first live album is a two-record sprawl of their biggest recorded at the Pasadena Rose Bowl (the 101st and last show on a their Music for the Masses Tour with Erasure and Wire). While the songs may not be all that different from their studio versions, they deliver a great show nonetheless.

The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses, released 13 March 1989. Meanwhile, the long-simmering sound of Manchester — brought to the fore previously by The Smiths and New Order, among numerous others — finally exploded internationally with a guitar-heavy rock dance beat that blew everyone away and inspired and influenced so many others for years to come and laid the ground for the classic 90s Britpop sound.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Dress for Excess, released 31 March 1989 (US). Okay, so perhaps this record didn’t inspire or influence anyone at all, but it’s still a fun album. It’s not as blissfully chaotic as 1986’s Flaunt It, but in the process they sound so much more professional, perhaps a bit more serious as a band. Lead single “Success” was a deliberate plan in that direction, hiring hit UK producers Stock Aitken Waterman to make their sound as slick as possible. Bonus points for writing and recording an absolutely gorgeous album closer in the form of the dystopian ballad “Is This the Future?”, still one of my all-time favorite tracks of theirs.

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More to come soon!

Thirty Years On, December 1988

Well here we are, on the back end of one of my favorite years ever.  Despite the emotional ups and downs I dealt with, it was a highly creative one for me, and started me on the long road of becoming a more serious writer.  My circle of college friends returned for a brief holiday break and we met up a few times before it was time to return for spring semester of 1989.

The brief meet-ups we had were just what I needed to get myself back on track emotionally and creatively.  It would still be a sad parting, but at the same time I had to remind myself that I was only a few months shy of escaping my small town as well.

Various Artists, Winter Warnerland, released early December.  The Warner Bros distribution team kicked this fine and fun double album out to radio stations across the land, and ended up in my vinyl collection later on.  Its quirky lineup includes Danelle Dax, Los Lobos, Hugo Largo, Throwing Muses and REM alongside more lighter fare like Gardner Cole, PM, Honeymoon Suite and Peter Cetera.  It also features a few holiday cheer bumpers from  bands and singers such as ZZ Top, Randy Travis, Nelson Wilbury (aka George Harrison), and, weirdly enough, multiple bumpers from Pee-Wee Herman.  It’s worth checking out if you can find it, if for it’s kitschiness.

The Pogues, “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” single, released December.  A stopgap single between albums, this a wonderful take-off on early 60s British pop, complete with a fantastic video riffing on European music programs like Beat Club.

The Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session, released 7 December.  This band came out of nowhere and immediately became a critic and fan favorite with its gorgeously sparse album of tunes and covers recorded in a single day using the natural reverb of a Toronto church.  While their follow-up albums may not have garnered the high praise this one received, they’ve remained active and dropped a lovely bluesy album just this year.

Compilation, Does Truth Dance? Does Truth Sing?  The Singles 1988, created 27 December.  My first end-of-year, multi-tape mix encapsulating my absolute favorite tracks released throughout the year.  Partly inspired by the end-of-year countdowns I used to record off the radio, this one ended up being a favorite mix of mine, even though the tracks do get a bit thin by the third tape.  Not bad for a first try, though!  The title was snagged from a repeated line from Wire’s “A Public Place” that closes out side 2 of the first tape.  I’d make more of these mixes off and on throughout the years, and by 2011 I’d made it a consistent annual event.

…and that’s it!  Hope you enjoyed this series!  It was certainly a fantastic year for music, a year that in my opinion was going to be hard to top.  For years I held it to the highest regard and no years would ever come close, at least not until ten years later, with the HMV year of 1998…

Thirty Years On: October 1988, Part I

October 1988:  Switching between multiple writing projects and the occasional poetry or Flying Bohemian lyric, while digging through my last year in high school.  Amherst College’s WAMH returns to the airwaves, much to my delight, and I begin recording things off the radio in earnest when I’m not buying albums (mostly on cassette) at Al Bum’s or Main Street Music.  A surprisingly large assortment of great tunage is released this month, so much that I have to split it up into two posts!

Buffalo Tom, Buffalo Tom, released ?? October. A new wave of bands with a distinctly Boston sound had started making a noise in the mid to late 80s, and Buffalo Tom was a huge favorite of everyone. They weren’t just loud and raucous, they wrote amazing melodies and smart lyrics. One of my favorite Boston bands, their entire discography is worth checking out.

Dinosaur Jr, Bug, released ?? October. Meanwhile, out in the Pioneer Valley of western MA, stoner rock dudes Dino Jr made a hell of a loud noise and released their second album, which the Five College area stations played incessantly. Such was their fanbase that they’d eventually become one of the highlights of the 90s alt-rock scene.

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation, released ?? October. And just a little further south in NYC, a band was making an even LOUDER noise (as it had been since the beginning of the decade) and released what would be one of their biggest albums to date. While not as dissonant as previous albums, it retained the power of their relentless energetic style.

Front 242, Front by Front, released ?? October. Following up from their absolutely amazing “Headhunter” single, the album provides not just their fast-paced EBM beats, but slower diversions that are just as intriguing. While a lot of industrial music from this era could sound great but feel emotionless (often on purpose), Front 242 always gave their songs an energy that brought their songs to life. One of my favorite albums of 1988, and a great listen on headphones!

Laibach, Let It Be, released ?? October. One of the more fascinating releases of the year, the Slovenian band covered almost the entire Beatles album of the same name (leaving out the title song). Each track was given its own style (such as the military stomp of “Get Back” or the Wagnerian operatic take on “I Me Mine”) but everyone gravitated to the absolutely lovely “Across the Universe”. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s well worth checking out.

Julian Cope, My Nation Underground, relased ?? October. He may be a bit of a weirdo, but Julian Cope certainly knew how to write some great tunes in his 80s career. “Charlotte Anne” is a lovely bit of dreamy British pop that became a fan favorite. He also does a really fun cover of The Vogues’ “5 O’Clock World” here as well.

A House, On Our Big Fat Merry Go Round, released ?? October. A great band from Dublin that flew under nearly everyone’s radar but dropped some really fun rock tracks that paved the way for guitar-based alt-rock in the 90s. This one’s a fun listen.

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Coming Soon: More tunage from October 1988!

Thirty Years On: September 1988

September 1988:  The beginning of senior year.  All I had to do was get through these nine months of school and I’d be escaping this small town (for good, I’d planned at the time) and moving onto bigger and better things.  The only thing keeping me back was my own damn self.  Which, considering my mindset at the time, was a pretty big fucking obstacle.  Embracing the Creative Moody Bastard was probably not the best of ideas in hindsight.  I worked damn hard on my writing, sure… but at the expense of my own emotional and mental well-being.

Strap in, folks — we have a lot of great tunage to sort through this time!

U2, “Desire” single, released 1 September. The teaser single to their big movie/album project Rattle & Hum, this was a great rock track linking Bo Diddley beats to modern rock. I loved this track when it came out, and I certainly have a soft spot for the album and film.

That Petrol Emotion, The End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, released ?? September. I finally got into this UK band during this album, and got to see them at UMass Amherst later that year. They had a great mix of Irish folk, funky grooves and loud noise.

Front 242, “Headhunter” single, released ?? September. I became a fan of industrial through this band, specifically this song. This is their best known track, though I’d been familiar with their previous tracks like “Agressiva” and “Quite Unusual”, which got a lot of play on 120 Minutes and WAMH. One of my favorite tracks of 1988.

Laibach, “Sympathy for the Devil” single, released ?? September. I became a fan of Laibach and their brand of industrial right about the same time. I loved the fact that they were both frightening and amazing due to their distinctively Slovenian style of operatic melodies, military beats and guttural singing. You never quite knew if they were serious or merely acting.

Siouxsie & the Banshees, Peepshow, released 5 September. An amazing album of their latter period. They’d gone from twitchy post-punk to proto-dreamwave to neo-psych, and this marked the beginning of their modern rock phase. It’s filled with some of their best tracks and highly recommended.

The Psychedelic Furs, All of This and Nothing, released 6 September. Everyone knew the hits from this band from the early days of MTV, of course, and this was a fantastic collection for anyone who hadn’t gotten around to picking anything up from them. Containing both hits and deep cuts (including the original version of “Pretty in Pink”, not the movie version), it shows just how great Richard Butler and co were as songwriters.

The Feelies, Only Life, released 13 September. This got a ton of play on WMDK and other progressive/AOR stations at the time, partly because it was a welcome return for a band that had been critical darlings at the start of the decade but had remained quiet for a good couple of years. Thanks in part to director Jonathan Demme, who used their music in his movies (and featured them as a party band in 1986’s Something Wild), they remained fan favorites all the way into the early 90s, and have come back strong in the current decade as well.

Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll, released 19 September. An album that stayed with me for years, and one that influenced my bass playing style early on. I fell in love with this band with this album and went out of my way to find the rest of their discography, even if it was dubbed from someone else’s collection. One of my favorite albums of all time, and highly recommended.

Enya, Watermark, released 19 September. This was an unexpected gem that grabbed my attention, thanks to her first hit. It might have been a big hit with the adults, but I loved its gorgeous, cavernous production. I found myself listening to this one a lot when I needed to chill for a while.

They Might Be Giants, Lincoln, released 25 September, I adored the lo-fi wackiness of their debut album and loved the teaser single for this album. It took me a while to get into it, though… it wasn’t as silly and absurdist, but it was still damn catchy. It was a slow burner for me, but I grew to love it dearly.

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Coming Up: October 1988, a month filled with albums running the gamut from incredibly noisy to quietly brittle.

 

Favorite Tracks: The Boys of Summer

It’s that time of year again. The time when I get all nostalgic about the end of a season, when I talk about how the days are getting shorter, the weather’s getting cooler, and all the kids are back in school.  When I start binge-listening to Cocteau Twins and other early 4AD bands.  When I get another one of those itches to write moody poetry and song lyrics.  And of course, when I start reminiscing about all the great albums that came out in the fourth quarter during my record store years.

Well, I could go on about those things, but I think I’ve already done them enough times for the time being, so I’ll spare you those entries for now.  Heh.

On the other hand, I will say that “The Boys of Summer” is quite possibly the best end-of-summer song ever written.

It started out as an instrumental demo written by Mike Campbell (guitarist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), initially for inclusion somewhere on their Southern Accents album but unused.  After hearing Don Henley needed some music, he let him listen to the demo, and almost immediately, Henley had words for it.

It’s not just a song about the passage of time, however.  It’s not a song about wondering where childhood went, although on the surface there is that theme.  It’s more about, as Henley said in a Rolling Stone interview, the idea of aging and questioning the past.

In a way, it might have a passing similarity in theme to The Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer”, but in all honesty, it’s more similar to The The’s “Jealous of Youth” in terms of theme.  It’s not a happy song, but neither is it a sad one.  It’s about coming to terms with the age you’re presently at, and all the conflicts that come along with it.  Feeling too old to embrace the wonder of summer, but too young to let it go.  Feeling frustrated when the signs of age sneak up on you unexpectedly — even if it’s in the form of a sticker of a nonconformist band’s logo on the bumper of a high-end car.

It’s a gorgeous melody, all told.  It’s high and hopeful, yet sad and lonesome at the same time.  It’s fast and tense, yet so delicately produced that it feels fragile.  Even the punk cover done by The Ataris in 2003 retains that mood, changing only the bumper sticker to Black Flag’s, making the song all the more poignant for us Gen-Xers.

Thirty Years On: July 1988

July 1988: Halfway through the summer.  Working at the radio station on the weekends and (I think?) at the Victory supermarket on the weekdays.  Meeting up with Chris and Nathan for Flying Bohemians jams, and the occasional road trip to the Pioneer Valley.  Teaching myself how to play decent bass guitar by playing along with various songs and albums, and learning how to write my own songs.  Taking a break from writing the Infamous War Book sequel and focusing on a roman à clef instead that I’d been playing around with, along with the first dribbles of poetry.  Pretty much turning myself into an introvert at this point.

The Psychedelic Furs, “All That Money Wants” single, released ?? July. A teaser single for their new greatest hits album that would pop up in a month or so. 120 Minutes jumped on this one, and so did WMDK. I heard it quite a bit throughout the summer.  I was well aware of the band, but this was when I finally got around to picking their stuff up.

Beat Happening, Jamboree, re-released ?? July. I missed this one when it first came out mid-1987, but by 1988 when Rough Trade reissued it, it was a critic favorite in some weird so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Not the best singers or musicians, they could certainly write one hell of a catchy tune.  WAMH was all over this album when they came back on the air in the autumn.  I’d like to think they’re to blame for the twee movement of the late 80s-early 90s.

Compilation, Lying On the Floor: The Singles, made ?? July. Chris catches the mixtape-making bug from me, and makes his first one that, in turn, changes the game for me. I note how his mix is essentially really cool songs he likes with a well-balanced flow. By the following month I’d take that into consideration and follow suit.  I certainly liked how he borrowed the Standing on a Beach theme for the title, this time borrowing from the Cure’s “Kyoto Song”.

Crowded House, Temple of Low Men, released ?? July. The second album by Neil Finn and Co. isn’t as big a seller and doesn’t have a stand-out single, but WMDK seemed to love it nonetheless. “Mansion in the Slums” was on their heavy rotation that summer.

Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Peek-a-Boo” single, released 11 July. I’d been a recent fan of theirs probably since 1986 when I heard “Cities in Dust” (and also their excellent 1987 cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”), but when I’d heard this one — as another useless promo single popping up at the radio station, I should add — it completely blew me away. I HAD to buy this album when it came out.

Joy Division, Substance, released 11 July. Definitely a game changer for me. Thanks to 1987’s New Order album of the same name, I was looking forward to seeing what the band was all about and why all the critics loved them. I instantly fell in love with “She’s Lost Control”, “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — three songs that deeply influenced my bass playing from then on — but it was the magical desperate beauty of “Atmosphere” that won me over. I couldn’t get enough of that song; it even influenced a scene in the story I was working on at the time. I spent many a summer evening playing bass to Side 2 of the tape (“She’s Lost Control” to “Love Will…”), and by the time I was back in high school, my chops had expanded considerably.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi, AKIRA soundtrack, released 16 July. I wouldn’t see this movie for another couple of years when I was in college, but I distinctly remember watching a Siskel & Ebert episode where they reviewed this movie. I remember it because that was when I first discovered that animation didn’t have to be Warner Bros cartoony or Filmation low-budget crappy. The clip they showed completely blew me away and set the course for my 90s anime obsessions.

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Next Up:  August 1988, in which my writing takes an interesting turn, I make one of my best early mixtapes, and a local band gets me (and a ton of others) excited!

 

Thirty-three (and a third?) Years On: 1985

This past weekend I was falling down the YouTube rabbit hole and stumbled up on one of my favorite Phil Collins songs, “Take Me Home”, from his third solo album No Jacket Required.  One of the wild realizations that occurred to me was that, a little over thirty-three years later, I have visited at least half of the locations in this video, and currently live in one of them.  More to the point, I don’t think the fourteen-year-old me would ever have imagined that ever happening.  Visiting Hollywood, various parts of central and greater London, and living in Greater London was something I’d have wanted to do as a teen but had no idea if it would ever happen.  I just thought of it as a fun pipe dream.

I’ve been thinking about that year lately, actually.  On IHeart80s Radio, they’ve been playing full episodes of American Top 40 (with Casey Kasem hosting), and now and again I find myself listening in, because that was the era I listened to it almost religiously every weekend.  Most of my radio mixtapes from that era came from those shows. That year’s chart-topping sound was an amazing mix of rock, R&B, soul, pop, and everything in between.

It was right at the end of my sucktastic years in junior high and my freshman year in high school, where I hoped my life (social and academic) would be so much better. It would take some time before I finally grew out of the small-town groupthink that I was so desperately trying to fit into and move on to bigger and better things, but for the time being I let myself get more immersed in my radio listening and mixtape-making. I still went to the school dances and hung out with my buddies, but I was there for the tunage, not for the girls. [Okay, that’s a half-truth. I was desperate, but at the same time I knew I was in no good frame of mind to have a girlfriend when I was an overly emotional twit with an overactive and underused imagination. That’s about when I buried myself in my burgeoning writing habit as well.]

I’ll be honest, I was getting sick of all the social drama. So I immersed myself in all the music that I could. If I happened to have money from an allowance (or saved up from my leftover lunch money) I’d head downtown to buy a few cassettes. I’d pick up cheap records at flea markets with my dad. I’d make copies of albums my sisters bought. Anything to buy the new albums that were being played on the radio.

It was definitely a strange time when I didn’t quite know who I was or what I wanted to do, just that I didn’t want to be what I presently was. Listening to the radio was the escape. It was the soundtrack to my writing (my other escape). Music gave me a connection to my classmates in a way that other things like sports and whatever else couldn’t. Even then I was known as the weird kid who knew every song on the charts and a lot of deep cuts on albums. Where the popular kids might not have given me the time of day, they’d ask me about some album or some band and if the album was worth picking up.

In a way, I’m kind of glad that I’ve kept that part of me all these years. I no longer use music purely as a social escape (at least not as much as I did then, of course), but I’m still a Subject Matter Expert for some of my friends. And in this internet day and age, it’s a shared interest that’s brought me all sorts of new friends and acquaintances that I might not have met in a different setting.

And here I am, writing this at home in San Francisco, one of the locations in the “Take Me Home” video I loved so much.